Vegan afternoon tea

Friends of mine were looking for an excuse to meet, and were thinking about visiting one of my awesome neighbourhood cafés The Crimson Tree. But I have tea set, I have cooking skillz *uh* vegan afternoon tea.

Of my friends, I had a veggie, a vegan-who-eats-tuna, and someone who is with child, which presented slight fun on the catering front, and I though I would try where poss to make everything as vegan as possible, then everyone could eat it.

With a bit of warning, I was able to cook some things in advance. The vegan shortbread had gone into school for a taster earlier in the week, and I managed to make a vegan cake early on Saturday morning.

To add to the complication my weekend was quite busy: I spent almost all of Saturday behind all three of the cider bars at the Robin Hood Beer Festival. By the end of the day I had excellent product knowledge of the full range of ciders and perries on offer and Sunday morning, I was not quite ready to leap out of bed at 8AM to start hoovering.

I got out all the food I had planned, but my dining chairs were slightly cat-hairier than desirable. (The cats rather like sleeping on the dining chairs under the table, and to be honest, months pass when only the cats use the dining furniture. To mitigate this I keep bags-for-life on some of the chairs to dissuade feline encroachment and on the others I flip the seat pads so they are not sitting where people sit.)

A day on Saturday out of the house, and catering for a 2pm kick off made timing a sourdough loaf a little interesting. In the end I made the leaven at 11am on Saturday, went to the festival, made a dough at midnight and allowed it to prove all night. I knocked it back and put it in the banneton at 10am Sunday and sat it on the hob with the oven on beneath it at 50deg to take some of the chill of my unheated kitchen off. It went in the oven at 1315 and came out shortly before 1400 ever so slightly raw on the bottom.

What do vegans eat in sandwiches? Last time I did an afternoon tea, over five years ago, I did ham and cheese, and tuna. Last time I fed sandwiches to this group of people we were still only veggie so I made egg mayo. This time a little more challenging.

Vegan afternoon tea

Cucumber sandwiches with sunflower spread. Peeled and sliced cucumbers with salt and pepper. Unfortunately the Aldi shop done barely minutes before the guests arrived had not found a fully vegan spread, and the sunflower stuff had traces of whey in it.  Should have just stuck to actual butter!

Caramelised onion hummus and grated carrot. I’m a huge fan of caramelised onion hummus and was delighted to find it in Aldi too. The grated carrot hides extra veg in your sarnie and adds some texture. I think the idea came from the Archers originally – it was an organic lunch that Pat Archer made.

Antipasto pâté Smørbrød. Another use for the nutribullet. Blitz a handful of sundried tomatoes, chargrilled peppers and green olives, all from jars, in just enough of the oil to make the thing work.  This was absolutely delicious and I shall be doing it again, vegans or no vegans.  Served as open sandwiches.

Vegan afternoon tea

Vegan shortbread. This recipe, but a great deal simpler. I bought a bottle of coconut oil a few years ago after having read about butter coffee and some other alternatives. I have never quite managed to blitz coconut oil into coffee before heading to school, mainly because it’s solid at room temperature, and I bought it in a bottle. So this was finally a use for it. The entire recipe was 250ml coconut oil, 3 cups plain flour, 3 cups dark brown sugar, mix, chill, bake at 150 deg for 50 minutes.

Vegan choc fruit loaf. One of the many iterations of my now almost weekly nutribullet fruit cake. Blitz two bananas, two pears topped and tailed but otherwise not peeled or deseeded, two heaped tablespoons of cocoa powder, half a bag of dark brown sugar, a good dollop of desiccated coconut, and since, I wasn’t using eggs, a dollop of golden syrup. This was too stodgy for the nutribullet to turn properly so needed some water as well.  Pour out into a bowl and add a teaspoon of baking powder and enough desiccated and SR flour to get to a stiff dropping consistency, along with a handful of cocoa nibs for texture, then bake in a 2lb loaf tin at 170 deg for over an hour, until a skewer comes out clean, covering with a foil couche halfway through to stop the top burning.  Sorry for the vague recipe, but my scales have been broken for weeks and my baking is increasingly approximate.

Vegan afternoon tea

Also all the table: Aldi iced finger buns (traces of whey). Ikea gingerbread Christmas biscuits (traces of milk), Italian nougat brought by a guest, fruitbowl (untouched) elderflower gin, crab apple vodka, bottle of champagne, coffee, tea. A roundly admired beautiful spotty teapot made by my friend The Purple Potter.

Project Dressing Room

Now that I live alone I have a spare room that was previously P’s office. It’s only barely big enough for a bed and was a box room when we bought the house ten years ago. I wasn’t entirely sure how to use the space when he left it entirely empty and beautifully clean, but my thoughts had been edging towards turning into a dressing room, or a giant walk-in wardrobe.

I wasn’t entirely sure how I could do this. I wondered about getting someone to build something simple out of scaffolding poles and MDF to make boxes – I’m a big fan of shelves for clothes rather than drawers. My clothes until now had been living in a mix of built-in wardrobes and open rails from Argos in the corner of my office. I’d recently innovated so that things that didn’t need to hang lived in cheap Ikea laundry baskets on the floor of the built in wardrobes.

Clothes baskets

A more expensive solution would have been a pair of Ikea wardrobes with all the fixtures and fittings. Two problems – one, it wouldn’t be impossible to end up spending a grand doing that and two, P had a wardrobe up against the external wall and it led to damp and mould.

This mould is where a wardrobe was next to the wall. What's going on here and how do I stop it?

That took about a year – he’d had worse problems before with more furniture closer to the walls. This is an old, single skin brick house and that room has two external walls.

I’d spent a couple of months wondering about it and idly googling, but everything I’d found so far was high-end, luxury spec sort of thing – because I suppose most people with the space for a dressing room are not short of a bob or two.

What made the difference in terms of getting the answer I wanted out of google was to add the search term “warehouse” – this mean the answers I was getting were a bit more high-volume, low-price and less hand-burnished rosewood with a mahogany trim.

The company Shopfitting Warehouse was what popped first and they had a whole series of chrome garment rails that are intended either for warehouse or shopfloor, but which are very well priced and don’t look cheap. They fixed almost all of the problems – free standing, so can stand away from the wall to allow airflow and to check and clean the mould if necessary. They can easily be moved around the house into other positions if necessary. Very easy on the budget. Modular, so I can configure them exactly how I want them. I ordered a couple of units on the last day of term and they were delivered bright and early on the first day of the holidays. I’d built them and put all of my clothes onto them within 90 minutes.

Project Dressing Room

Project Dressing Room

Project Dressing Room

I can’t quite get a picture showing both units together because the room is so small I can’t stand far enough away. But I am distinctly chuffed. I have more clothes storage space than I have ever had and more than I need, even for the obscene amount of shirts I own. And all for less than £200.

Project Dressing Room

Project Dressing Room

(Now to go and get 15 shirts back from the cleaners and drop off another 15, and do two loads of washing. Hmm, that will fill some of the spaces…)

My experience hosting a supperclub

(File this one under “things I should have blogged months ago!”)

In November last year, just over a year after I opened our doors for CDWM, we hosted a supper club in our house.

We weren’t cooking, we were hosting for my vegan chef friend who used to blog here but is presently on hiatus.

I think it was a good evening. We had an interesting blend of people, who enjoyed our chef’s food. Our guests were a mix of vegans and not. For an evening, we had a house full of people who had never been here before.

In order to get the house ready we had spent about a week tidying clutter away, and I spent the Saturday hoovering, dusting and laying tables. Our guests didn’t seem disgusted by the state of our house, but then, as we learned on Come Dine With Me, they don’t usually express their disgust to your face! (And they weren’t allowed in as many rooms as the CDWM guys!)

Some things I learned:

* if I borrow a table and six chairs, I can easily seat 16 people for dinner in our house.

* We already have enough cutlery, crockery, glassware, candles, table linen without borrowing any more (!)

* in November, we need to run the heating all day to get the house tolerably warm

* if you deadbolt the kitchen door and put a camping table up against it you can get an extra prep surface. But it will be uncomfortably low down.

Some things that were hiccoughs along the way:

Boiling enough water to feed gnocchi to 16 people takes a looong time. They had to be cooked in separate batches because some of them were gluten free, so we needed two pans of boiling water. The gnocchi had been made ahead and frozen and needed to be plunged into large pans of boiling water. Getting 20l of water to the boil in a domestic kitchen is a time consuming challenge.

The second thing that held us up was plate warming. This is all the more important in our house because our kitchen is unheated and the cupboards fix directly to the walls. In winter, some of our cupboards are colder than our fridge. Our plates are often icy. There’s no point getting the food good and warm if you then By the time we needed warm plates, the oven was very hot cooking puff pastry, and the sink was full of used pots and pans. We actually warmed plates in the end by wetting them and microwaving them, all the while worrying this might break them.

Two of our guests were the hosts of North Nott’s Clarkies Supperclub (last few spaces remaining at their April event!). We had been worried they might be hostile to competition, but that wasn’t the case at all. It seems there is plenty of market share available for another supper club in the Nottingham neck of the woods – in fact there doesn’t appear to be any other one currently running anywhere in the East Midlands. The Clarkies have said they are keen for others to set up just so they have an opportunity to go and eat out instead of hosting for a change.

They had suggestions for the platewarming problem – buy a hostess trolley. They’re pricey new, but there does seem to be a steady supply of really cheap ones on eBay.

Which leads me to my conclusion. Would I do this again? Is it worth buying a hostess trolley off eBay? So far, I only have experience of hosting and not cooking. At our last event, our chef partner did all the cooking, devised the menu, and did all the publicity, mostly through the very obliging Nottingham Vegan website. I’m not sure I could cook as well as our chef, nor present the food as well, nor work out such an interesting menu.

Certainly working as a teacher I could not run an event in term time, as the prep and publicity would take too long. Do I want to spend half terms hosting a restaurant in my house?

If you do it regularly, it does seem to take over your house a little. In her book, Kerstin Rodgers confesses she’s had to move her entire life into the bedroom of her flat as her sitting room is dominated now by tables and chairs. In conversation with the Clarkies, it seems they have had to give over a spare bedroom to holding the folding chairs, tables, extra dinner services and linen they need.

Do you ever make any money from it? We were on a profit share basis with our chef partner and at the end of the evening divvied up the takings. And we got a nice handful of tenners in return for our efforts. We had incurred some cost – heating, and professional help in cleaning up ready for our guests – so we comfortably broke even. But the temptation to buy ever more things to make the evening go better – cooking kit, serving kit, must mean if you do it regularly, you incur costs. Would it ever get to the point where you made money? I doubt it. I guess most people who do it, do it for the love of food and the interesting times you end up with.

Will we do it again? I have not ruled it out forever, but I am sure as heck going to try and get teaching a bit more sorted out before I have another go myself. So certainly ruling it out for PGCE year and (hopefully) NQT year to summer 2013.

Your gardening suggestions please…

… for things you can plant, that need next to no looking after, that yield an edible crop, year after year.

Rhubarb would be an obvious one, I think. Both of us think we don’t like rhubarb, but it could just be we didn’t like it as children and haven’t properly revisited our opinion in adulthood. Then there’s the worry of the “poisonous” leaves – Wikipedia says it would take the average adult 5kg of disgusting bitter leaves to get a lethal dose.

Raspberry canes might be another? I think you’re supposed to cut them down at the end of the season, but I’m sure I remember some self-seeded ones in my grandfather’s garden that did nearly as well as the highly-attended-to ones in the fruit cage.

We do have an elder tree which yields lovely flowers for elderflower cordial around this sort of time each year. This year, I’m also planning to have a go at elderflower vodka as well for something tasty to last a little longer.

We’ve no room for any more trees, and we have far more shaded parts of our garden than sunny, because of all the trees around the edges.

We have a few seedlings that have been kindly donated this year, which is more than we have managed in the past. If we manage to get them past the highly dubious stage where the local slugs eat out all the growing shoots, that will be a minor miracle.

Really cold

The weather station in my garden recorded a low temperature of -6.6deg last night – that is really cold! The Calverton weather page says that’s the lowest in seven years – although last year ran it close.

So cold that in the middle of the night there were strange noises that woke us up. We think they were the conservatory shrinking in the cold. The frost on the roof didn’t melt at all during the day (which is possibly an indication of how much our new conservatory is not actually a suntrap at all). Bedroom thermometer said the bedroom got down to 15 degrees, which given that it’s been remarkably constant at 19deg is quite a drop.

But not as cold as in my parents’ town in Herefordshire – their garden thermometer recorded a night-time low of -8.5.

The last week has shown cold, but sunny days, and the solar panel performance has been impressive. Until very recently I have worried a bit that solar won’t do enough over the summer. But these last few days, even though outside hasn’t got much over 10 degrees, the panel has consistently got above 30 degrees, which makes a good difference to the base temperature of our cylinder before the gas boiler kicks in in the evenings.

Observation shows that it takes the gas boiler a good two hours to heat the hot water cylinder enough over 60 degrees for me to have my planet-killing luxurious long hot shower in the morning. So I know that for the panel to completely replace the gas heating, the panel needs to get up to 80 degrees for at least two hours. That’s looking distinctly more possible over the summer if we can get over 30 degrees on sunny, cold wintry days.

Electric meter reading

My electric meter reading yesterday afternoon was 000000!

This is because Eon contacted me at the start of the new year and said it was time to replace my electric meter, which had reached the end of its life.

So yesterday, we went from this meter, with its old dials and wheels, and the wheel at the front to show how fast we were using power:

Old meter

To this soulless white monstrosity:

New meter

On the way, we also lost our radio teleswitch. No more thunks at 8am as the house is remotely switched off the Economy 7 tarif.

Radio teleswitch

I was a little annoyed that the meter is so basic. Routine meter replacement is an ideal opportunity to put in better meter technology. I was hoping for a smart meter which could be read remotely and give feedback on energy useage. Or at least relocation out of my hall, so that I no longer have to be home to have my meter read. I suspect the lack of a smart meter means it will have to be replaced again before long. The city council has been using remote smart metering extensively in the huge number of buildings the council is responsible for. This has helped them reduce costs and waste by monitoring energy and water use on an hourly basis. You know that a school using lots of water in the holidays has a leak, or has forgotten to turn off 15 minute flushing urinals that aren’t being used.

Back home, the measurements nerd in me is chuffed with a meter that briefly read 0. We have now used about 10kWh in our first day. I have no idea whether this is good or bad, but I do know that visitors to our house have sometimes been surprised at the lights we have on. Being green is as much about reducing routine energy useage as installing novel technology such as the solar panel.

In assessing our own energy useage, there’s good and bad to report. We routinely turn our telly off as we’re advised to. But I leave more computers running all the time than I should. Additionally, we do have a lot of lights on. This is partly because we forget to turn them off, but also because of a tension between green advice and safety advice. The green advice is turn off everything you’re not using. The community safety advice is try to avoid being burgled by using time switched and lights to make it look like someone is home. And further safety advice says things like leave the landing light on when you have visitors to prevent people unfamiliar with your home from falling down the stairs.

One last thing on energy monitoring: last year we switched away from Good Energy, the green supplier that gave kickbacks to the Lib Dems. This was mainly because we could no longer afford to pay the extra cost that came from having our gas and electricity supplied by two different companies. I’m now on an internet-only tarif with Scottish Power, which is useful firstly because they now email me when they want meter readings, and secondly because their online account details include previous data. This helps you manage your useage across years – how many kWh were you using this time last year? By logging in, I can see we averaged 12kWh a day for the two quarters we have data for.